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Sandy relief effort ‘catalyzes’ local temple
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Sandy relief effort ‘catalyzes’ local temple

A partnership between New Jersey Jews and Israelis has been the “catalyst” for Temple Shaari Emeth to join efforts to rebuild nearby Union Beach.

The Manalapan Reform congregation hosted 10 Israelis and 11 members of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, who spent Aug. 11-16 volunteering to help rebuild a Union Beach home ruined by Hurricane Sandy.

Shaari Emeth provided videography and photography services, and meals for the volunteers. Three members opened their homes to volunteers for nightly Torah study.

The volunteer effort also opened doors for the synagogue, which had sought to join the Sandy rebuilding effort since the storm struck last October.

Shaari Emeth’s Rabbi Melinda Panken credited the interfaith partnership behind this month’s volunteer mission. Known as Bonim B’Yachad: Building Together in Union Beach, it includes Jewish Helping Hands, the Greater MetroWest federation, and Gateway Church of Christ in Holmdel.

The Bonim B’Yachad project received substantial funding from Jewish Federations of North America provided through its Hurricane Sandy Relief Fund.

“Our goal is to now continue working together with the MetroWest federation to put together some rebuilding opportunities,” said Panken. “We now have resources to get involved with Union Beach. This really is the jumping-off point for us, the catalyst. We have already reached out to the church, which has been providing up to 1,200 volunteers a month.”

The Union Beach house belongs to a widow, Cyndi Dalton, who lived there with her daughter, two young granddaughters, and her 19-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum. The Dock Street home, like so many others in the neighborhood abutting Raritan Bay, was so heavily damaged it could not be salvaged.

During their stay the volunteers spackled walls, installed sheet rock and doors, and finished windows. They also spent time learning and socializing with one another.

The Israelis came from the regions of Ofakim and Merchavim, Kibbutz Erez, and Arad, which are linked to the Greater MetroWest federation through the Partnership 2Together twinning program overseen by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

“This is a building project, but it is also an experiment in Jewish living and creating community,” said Rabbi Joel Soffin, president of Jewish Helping Hands, which he founded upon retiring as religious leader after 27 years at Temple Shalom in Succasunna in Morris County. “In the morning we worship together, then work all day and at night we study Torah.” 

Joan Weidhorn of Manalapan, who with her husband Peter hosted the group for dinner and Torah study, told NJJN she was moved by the experience and the people she met who were from “all walks of life and experiences.”

“I thought these people coming over and partnering with the Jewish community here was a wonderful example of tikun olam,” Weidhorn said. “I was especially touched that the family for whom they were rebuilding the house was not even Jewish. It was such a beautiful example of being a humanitarian and caring about anybody in need. Our hosting a dinner was just a drop in the bucket compared to what they were doing as far as I’m concerned.”

The other hosting couples were Dale and Terry Goldberg and Sue and Bruce Rifkin.

Tal Morag, who led the Israeli delegation, said that in addition to helping Americans, the project created “a living bridge and a connection” centered on Jewish values. “I have never done anything like this before,” said Morag, who is from outside Ofakim. “These are an amazing group of people. They took time off of work. They paid for their flight to get here.”

Panken took part in a “blessing of the house” ceremony on Aug. 16, when the volunteers got to meet Dalton as she walked through her home. Each volunteer stood to recite their individual blessings for the home, all of which will be compiled in a book to be presented to the family. A bracha was also made over a hallah supplied by Shaari Emeth.

Even with the help, there remains is much to be done, the rabbi noted.

“Even though some houses were rebuilt immediately, a bunch still have yellow tape across them,” she said. “You don’t want to forget about the houses with the yellow tape.”

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